Saturday, April 21, 2012


After quiet winters, trilling begins again around the time yellow-crowned night heron fly back into town. Gulf coast toads come out of hibernation to talk at dusk around the pond with chirps and burbles. Our two year old knows the sound and says "night toad," sensing not just a being, but being-in-time. You can hear them over the A/C. When they spawn they chorus. Sometimes a few days later we find strings of white eggs, then hundreds of tadpoles thriving in our shower greywater.

Why does this soundscape make me feel happy and relaxed? Maybe it cues remembered feelings of our two tropical vacations to St. Croix and Costa Rica. We stayed in open-air bungalows with no A/C surrounded by amphibian choruses. All night multirhythms lulled us. Our getaways were romantic couple vacations melded with a desire to support sustainable economies. We were nature-loving eco-tourists experiencing the beauty and force of the tropics. Then there was the bed and breakfast on the way to Grandpa’s in Missouri, where a couple had built a two story waterfall out of local rocks surrounded by a deck, and tree frogs that moved in serenaded you all night. The sounds conjure atmospheres of the Global South—swampy regions, jungles, islands, humidity.

Maybe toad sounds tap what biologists like E.O. Wilson claim to be a hard-wired human biophiliac response. Amphibians are indicator species that index a healthy ecosystem, and hearing them lets my body know "the environment" is okay, at least in the backyard. But "we need not naturalize [the love of nature] as a universal biology in order to appreciate its global spread."* In an ethnographic account of environmentalisms set in Indonesia, Anna Tsing argues that loving nature expresses a nascent cosmopolitanism, an ethical sensibility and self-building project that steps out of a parochial blindness to one's environment to appreciate local peculiarities in a global context. Cultural and national modes of nature loving have their regional flavors, but share the sense of “the environment” as a human-free thing out there, to be protected against a different kind of objectification of nature that destroys its object.

So maybe it is just a US middle class environmentalist/nature lover response, delight in a lively nonhuman atmosphere that is supposed to be the opposite of urban. The pond is what landscapers and Home Despot call a “water feature.” Aquatic habitats are key parts of “wildlife gardening” design schemes that try to attract urban animals and maintain their eating and mating habitats. Our pond fits into biophiliac markets that include bird keying guides and hiking gear, the pet world, perhaps even the vast formal economic sector of the food industry (for those who express their love of living things by eating them). My qualia of life is enhanced by this nature soundtrack** of toad jazz.

Something else in the sound itself moves through my body. The trill's texture, like rapidly rising flute notes, and the response from another part of the yard, is a musical composition offset by a deeper range of wet growls. Sometimes the splash of a diving toad, and always the sound of the pond's waterfall. The sound itself is compelling, regardless of where it comes from.

Sounds are one of the sensory modes through which toads live in our yard. The texture of their seasonal refrains conjures synaesthetic impressions of their molten bronze eyes and dried leaf patterns on the backs of their heads. The toads and I indulge in the pleasures of feeling and seeing sounds, the work of listening, acknowledging talk, exercising sensitivity. I would miss these sensory habits attached to the toads if they went away. They live in cracks, unintended spaces in anthropogenic landscapes that provide an atmosphere where autonomous things can take care of themselves. Caves accidentally formed when I dug out a pit for the Jacuzzi shell that serves as the pond’s lowest pool, in the hollows under the front courtyard’s juniper tree, under logs around the garden with stripe-backed walking sticks. They inhabit a captivating little world of their own that has nothing to do with us, except that we assembled the junk art yard they call home. Despite the toads’ autonomy, I suspect we need each other.

Inside the museum, silent toads play pool. These taxidermy bufos are notorious for a hallucinogenic excrescence from glands on their backs that poisons dogs and makes teen toad-lickers trip. Cane toads, a bufo species introduced to Australia to control beetles eating sugar cane crops, are invasive nuisances that eat everything. In the Monstrosities exhibition, we displayed a gaff “Flesh Eating Toad from Madagascar” doctored out of a bufo with a set of piranha teeth. The pool players enjoyed a toad mariachi band with a horn section, drummer, and guitar players near the toad bartender. But their eyes are dead unseeing black orbs. Small nails through their feet and hands give them a crucified effect. Their bodies look bloated, overly stuffed, and their mouths are sewn shut. Somewhere in Mexico someone is preparing them, right now.

While bufo species like the gulf coast toads (Bufo valliceps) that inhabit our yard are not particularly endangered, since the 1980s, ecologists and biologists have documented rising vulnerability and extinction of amphibian populations. Suggested causes include habitat destruction and fragmentation, lethal funguses introduced from non-native frog species, climate change, and increased anthropogenic noises that drown out the sounds of amphibian mating calls.*** Industrial pollutants, insecticides, and herbicides also contribute to these population crashes. Controversial research on the widely used herbicides glysophate (first engineered for Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide) and atrazine have found that the chemicals cause changes in amphibians ranging from nervous system disorders to hermaphroditism. Amphibian die off joins bee colony collapse and bat white nose syndrome as troubling and mysterious ecological crises.

Publics gather around these vulnerable life forms to mitigate crises and preserve biodiversity. In Great Britain and Scotland, the nonprofit Froglife works to rebuild wetland and pond habitats in urban areas and help frogs and toads cross roads during spawning season. For twenty years volunteers with the Toads on Roads project have documented crossing sites, pushed road builders to install “wildlife crossings,” and manually hauled over 60,000 animals a year in buckets during “toad patrols.” The Living Water project “is creating and restoring prime wildlife habitats in gardens and parks throughout London and Glasgow.”**** They do this partly by using a chemical called rotenone to kill invasive stickleback fish that prey on tadpoles and newt larvae.

Bruno Latour tells a story about toad ethologists who “transformed the mores of these creatures into indisputable essences, and this in turn obliged highway builders to hollow out costly ‘toadways’ in their embankments, so that the toads could get back to their birthplace to lay their eggs.” But the toads rejected the “costly and dangerous tunnels” in favor of the new ponds on the road embankments. “After the experiment, the location of the egg-laying site was thus transformed from essence to habit: what was not negotiable became negotiable.”*****

These little toad worlds are different than approaching “the environment” as a pre-human thing out there that becomes perceptible through its decimation or conversion into resources (whether sustainable or not). The capacities of ecological beings to act on and in the world have become less about timeless essences and more of a set of problems in engineering and behavior modification within a common world -- problems to which nonhumans sometimes find their own surprising solutions in excess of objectifying knowledge that claims to know how things should be. The learned and shared behaviors of toads and humans change. Landscape patches emerge through these collective behaviors, through extended or collaborative bodies like the toads-in-human-carried-buckets living machines.

Intimacies and couplings are taking shape here. People are helping toads mate, and toad sounds wrap couples in romantic soundscapes. Children learn to talk, listen, and love nature by relating to toad vocalizations. Teens experiment with toad secretions. Scientific and conservationist communities gather. Friendships and careers are made. “We”s and worlds firm up.


* Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 154.

** “Qualia” are sensations or feelings (not meanings) in response to aesthetic forms like sounds, colors, or gestures. Conservation and habitat restoration efforts can be driven by desires to preserve nature or the environment as an asset for quality of life in urban areas, and/or by an ethical orientation that protects species for their own sake, in political support of their autonomous existence. The latter orientation has to deal with questions of who belongs and how to control unwanted/invasive populations. Despite being the major ecological source of habitat destruction, humans are, of course, excluded from consideration in invasive species eradication programs.



***** Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press (2004), 87.

1 comment:

  1. Your writing is so lovely it makes me feel woozy. It's always inspiring to read it. It helps me attune to the world around me, to become more sensitive to the crick in my neck as I type and to the birds that trill their own songs in the morning urban ecology that is NYC. Thank you.